Friday, August 18, 2017

They Call it Superior

  I headed north this past weekend to play in the Twin Ports Open chess tournament. I played in this tournament last year (and wrote about it here) in Duluth, Minnesota and had a great time. I had an incredible hotel room right off Lake Superior with a giant boat bigger than the hotel just outside. The hotel was located on a tourist street so there were plenty of places to eat and visit within a block away. The chess wasn’t bad also. After defeating a pair of teenage girls in the first two rounds I drew two of the top six seeds before losing my last round game with second place money on the table. The tournament was so well run and I had such a good time that it was an easy decision to commit early to playing in the tournament again in 2017.

  The decision may not have been so easy if I had made it in February after having my department eliminated and becoming an independent contractor where a day off is cash out of my pocket. My vacation time is built into my hourly rate but it is a mental thing to know even leaving an hour early is leaving cash on the table. The decision to come to Twin Ports probably would have been a no if I had made it in late April after taking on a second contracting job keeping the interface to a government agency up and running after everyone else that knew how to keep it running had also been eliminated by my old employer. The second job takes around 10 hours a week with at least a half hour every single morning and frequently eating into my lunch time and the few hours I have in the evening. Keep in mind that I’m not complaining - I agreed to these responsibilities with the understanding that this is a temporary windfall until my independent assignment ends (likely at the end of the year) and the companies that own the interface find other companies with more resources to maintain and upgrade the system.

  Having said all that, at the moment my time is at a premium but to me a commitment made is a commitment to be honored and so on Friday I was headed to the Twin Ports Open. Like last year planned to travel with four time state champ Tim Mc Entee who is one of my best friends in the chess world. Tim doesn’t drive a stick shift so sharing the driving with my car was out last year and we rented a car with an automatic transmission. I had recently purchased a 2017 Chevy Spark complete with an auto transmission and intended to take the new car to Superior, Wisconsin (the twin port to Duluth and site of the 2017 tournament) but we were going to travel with two of Tim’s friends and students from Drake University (Troy and Ty). My 2017 Chevy Spark has four doors but not nearly enough room for 4 people and four bags so I rented a Chevy Impala from Enterprise rent a car. I performed my normal contracting chores on Friday and when Tim and Troy arrived around 8 (we were picking up Ty on the way) we headed to Enterprise.

  It took about a half hour to get the car from Luke the Enterprise rental agent. Luke was the only agent on duty and was busy dealing with another renter whose car wasn’t ready. Eventually we got to the Impala which could best be described as a couch on wheels with plenty of room, an engine that started at the push of a button, and a wireless hot spot. I took the first two hours driving until we got to Mason City where we stopped for lunch (I had an awesome Egg McMuffin, of course) and then Tim took over the driving until we got past Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Here is the very impressive Chevrolet Impala I rented from Enterprise in Marshalltown, Iowa. Among it's many features are a pristine glove box unsullied by car registrations or rental agreements...

  Since I wasn’t driving I had time to try to figure out how to use the car’s wireless hot spot. I didn’t have the password so I decided to look in the glove box to see if the information was written on the rental agreement or registration packet. The glove box was completely empty with not even a registration. I called the local Enterprise office and was on hold for 15 minutes while being told all agents were busy and my call was very important. I hung up and called the 800 number for roadside assistance. We were still driving but if we got pulled over without a registration I would certainly need some roadside assistance or at least a bail bondsman. After two minutes I was talking to Brenda the Enterprise representative. I told Brenda that I had no car registration and she told me it was in the glove box. I said the glove box was empty and she said "Really?" I thought maybe there was a secret compartment in the Impala so I checked again and informed Brenda that the glove box was really, really, REALLY empty. Brenda then said she would email me a copy of the registration. This was fine by me except I had an iPod and a computer and neither had the internet while traveling so I asked Brenda for the wireless hot spot password. Brenda told me that the wireless hotspot was only for use with the ‘travel tablet’ and since I didn’t order one there was no internet for me from my rental car. I thanked Brenda and told her if I got pulled over I’d ask the state trooper if I could use his internet to show him my registration. I then called the Enterprise office in Marshalltown and this time got Luke the agent right away. Luke told me all I needed was the rental agreement which was emailed to me and that any law enforcement agency I showed it to would then call Enterprise to verify. I don’t know if I believed Luke but it’s not like I had a choice.

Welcome to Wyoming...Minnesota, home to a quadrupling hot dog supply and perpetual lottery winner Matthew L.

  After a little more driving we took a break in Wyoming. Wyoming, Minnesota that is (population 7,751) and stopped at the same Shell station as last year. As you may recall last year the Shell station proclaimed a Matthew L. as a winner of a $1,000 lottery prize and there was one hot dog available at the hot dog station. I am pleased to report that either Matthew L. has not lost his magic touch and is still winning $1,000 lottery prizes or no one in Wyoming has won a lottery prize of note in 12 months or the 7,750 people in Wyoming that are not Matthew L. are extremely camera shy or there really aren’t any people in Wyoming, Minnesota and it is part of the Russian plan to hack our election (which would also explain naming a city after a state – silly Russians…). Thanks to the booming economy there were four times as many hot dogs in the grilling station as last year which came to a grand total of four hot dogs for me to choose from. I selected the pepperjack cheese smoked sausage to go along with a Green Machine Naked Juice drink and we were back on the road to the Twin Ports.

While I was waiting on a stretch of one lane US INTERSTATE HIGHWAY 35 for the second year in a row, I had time to compare the two pictures on the right from last years blog post and ponder whether Matthew L. was pictured in the Wyoming, Minnesota Shell station at least twice in a year or his likeness is so legendary it is never taken down....

  Except for a small traffic delay on the same UNITED STATES INTERSTATE HIGHWAY that was reduced to one lane in each direction for ten miles JUST LIKE LAST YEAR we arrived in Duluth around 4 and kept right on going. We kept going because this years’ tournament was across the bridge in Superior, Wisconsin. The epic site of last years tournament (the Duluth Suites Inn) had replaced the tournament rooms with office space and was no longer available so tournament organizers Dane Zagar and Dane Mattson moved the tournament across the inlet to the Barkers Island Inn. The Barkers Island Inn is part of a resort that has a marina, tennis courts, and boatyard. It is considerably more upscale than the touristy Suites Inn and charges considerably more yet the rooms weren’t nearly as spectacular with a micro fridge and micro wave replacing the Suites Inn’s full kitchen. Because the Inn was a resort and not part of a tourist stop there was nothing within walking distance except boats, water fowl, water, and signs telling people not to swim because Barkers Island has frequent drownings.

Welcome to the Barkers Island Inn. The view of the lake is spectacular and probably even better while sailing in your giant boat!

  Having said that, the Barkers Island Inn was just fine and I can’t hold it against them that the Suites Inn in Duluth was so spectacular. There was an affordable restaurant in the Inn and vending machines that could dispense anything from soda to candy to frozen burgers to yo-yos and playing cards. And anyway while having a hotel room with a full kitchen and plenty of places to walk to I was going to spend most of the next 48 hours sleeping, working, or or hunched over a chess board. I checked in, said hi to Dane and Dane, greeted some of the other players I recognized, avoided some of the other players I recognized, and then we all drove a couple of miles to a Perkins restaurant for dinner. At that point it was time to get some sleep for a long weekend of chess.

I was spoiled by my awesome room at the Suites Inn in Duluth last year but my room at the Barkers Island Inn was roomy enough and came with a charging station, free pen, and an antique phone!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Buy High, Sell Low

  When I last wrote about my adventures in the stock market using my self-directed 401K and cash I get from side jobs (the Found Money Fund or FMF) I focused on buying stocks and collecting an immediate return by selling the option to sell the stock at a lower price than I paid for it. This strategy is called an ‘In-The-Money Covered Call’. My last post mentioned that in the case of Emerson (EMR) the stock price rose just before the date stockholders would receive a dividend which caused the option I sold to be exercised the day before I was due to receive the dividend.

  Companies that declare dividends usually issue them like clockwork each quarter. Emerson and Exxon issue the dividend to stockholders on the second week of February, May, August, and November with the dividends paid the second week of the next month. Intel uses the same months and issues the dividends on the first week of the month payable on the first day of the next month. The day the dividend is issued the stock goes down by the same amount as the dividend. Meanwhile options are sold that expire each week but the bulk of options expire on the third Friday of every month.

  The timing of the dividend date and the monthly options date got me thinking that if I timed my options sells to expire just after the dividend issue date I would either get my option covered early and received an increased yield because I wasn’t holding the ‘in the money stock’ as long or I would pick up the dividend and still have a couple of weeks for the stock price to rebound so the option would be picked up and I would get my agreed-on profit with the bonus of a dividend.

  My first attempt came in early May. A week before Emerson was going to issue their 48 cent per share dividend I scooped up 200 shares at $58.14 a share including commission and took $303 by selling the option to purchase these shares at $57.50 on June 16th. The stock climbed over $59 a share over the next week and closed at $58.85 on May 9th. I fully expected my option to be called in the next day before the dividend was issued and leave me a $170 profit for a six-day investment (1.45% or 88.1% annual). To my dismay the option wasn’t called and I picked up the $96 dividend. Over the next five weeks Emerson bounced between $57.25 and $61.30 and was at $60.68 on June 16th when my option was called and I sold my 200 shares as agreed upon for $57.50. So, I bought a stock on May 4th at $58.14 and sold it for $57.50 when its market price was $60.68. This sounds like idiocy but when the option price and dividend are factored in I made $264 for a 43-day investment which comes to 2.27% or 19.3% annually.
5/4/2017Buy 200 EMR @58.1251-11629.97
5/4/2017Sell 2 EMR Option @57.5 (1.55)
Expiring 6/16/2017
5/10/2017.48 dividend payable 6/10/2017+96.00
6/16/2017Sell 200 EMR @57.50
(option was exercised)

  A wise guy friend of mine pointed out that if I had just bought the EMR stock at $58.14 on May 4th and sold it on June 16th for $60.68 I would have still collected the dividend and made $606 or more than double what I made. This is true but I am not trying to buy low and sell high – I am buying high and selling low in order to maximize my chances of grabbing a percent or two in return. In baseball terms I’m choking up on the bat to hit singles and keep the ball in play instead of taking big swings which can either be home runs or strikeouts.

  In my April post I wrote how I had bought 100 shares of Exxon (XOM) stock for $83 a share on February 15th and sold and bought back and re-sold options to sell the stock at $82.5, always taking a small profit on the buyback of the option and then reselling the option with a later expiration date. On May 3rd, I was showing a profit of $282, the stock was safely below the $82.50 option price, and the Exxon dividend was going to be issued on May 10th. I bought the May option I had sold for $95 less than I sold it for at the end of March and sold a new option expiring on June 16th for $135. My idea was that if the Exxon price skyrocketed in the next week I would have my option called before the dividend was issued but the stock price stayed stubbornly below $82.50 and I collected the dividend on May 10th (payable June 9th). On the option expiration date of June 16th, XOM jumped from $82.26 to $83.49 and again my option was called. To recap I bought 100 shares of XOM for $83 on Feb 15th and sold it for $82.50 on June 16th even though the market price was $83.49. Just like my EMR adventure it looks like lunacy in action until we factor in the $77 dividend and the profit I made from selling and reselling the options which shows a profit for my 4-month investment of $360 which is 4.3% and 13% annually! And to my wise guy friend who pointed out I could have doubled my profit on EMR by buying and holding I would point out that the same strategy with XOM would have left me with a profit of $127 or almost two thirds less than I managed with a little care and effort.
2/15/2017Buy 100 XOM @82.925-8300.45
2/15/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (2.32)
Expiring 4/21/2017
3/30/2017Buy 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.10)
Expiring 4/21/2017
3/30/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.80)
Expiring 5/19/2017
5/3/2017Buy 1 XOM Option @82.5 (.75)
Expiring 5/19/2017
5/3/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.41)
Expiring 6/16/2017
5/10/2017.77 dividend payable 6/9/2017+77.00
6/16/2017Sell 100 XOM @82.50
(option was exercised)

  I played this game with XOM with a different price point in May. On May 5th (5 days before the dividend issue date) I bought 200 shares of XOM for $81.81 and collected $1.81 a share for the option to sell the stock at $81 on June 23rd. I expected the option to be called the next week and leave me with a $200 profit for a 5 day investment but the option wasn’t called on May 10th even though the stock was above the $81 strike price at $81.54 so I was issued the dividend. As I mentioned above XOM skyrocketed to $83.49 on June 16th but the option on the $81 sell still wasn’t called. Exxon plummeted the next week and on June 23rd closed at $81.61 when the option was exercised. This was the happiest ending yet – I bought 200 shares on May 5th at $81.81, sold it 49 days later for $81 and pocketed a $341 profit which is 2.1% and 15.5% annually. If I had done a buy and hold like my wise guy friend has suggested I would have shown a profit of $99 which was again two thirds less than I received with some active management.

5/5/2017Buy 200 XOM @81.79-16362.95
5/5/2017Sell 2 XOM Option @81.00 (1.81)
Expiring 6/23/2017
5/10/2017.77 dividend payable 6/9/2017+154.00
6/23/2017Sell 200 XOM @81.00
(option was exercised)

  When my options were called the stocks were sold and I had all my cash back plus my profit. So what did I do with my money now that it was back in the form of cash? I turned around and did the same thing all over again but this time using the expiration date of August 18th which is a week after XOM and EMR again issue dividends. I’ll report on the outcome in a few weeks. I think my buy high and sell low strategy is a low risk way to get sizable returns. I believe my strategy is better in a down or sideways market than the current bull run since I am limiting my upside in the case of a stock skyrocketing. I am also limiting my down side in case of a crash since even if my chosen stocks go down a percent or more I have a good chance of getting the option called and my cash back along with my profit and even if I get caught having to hold a stock that is in a downtrend I only do this with top shelf stocks that pay a solid dividend so I am paid for my ‘patience’ while I wait for the stock to go back up again. Buying and holding seems like more of a gamble to me since I simply do not know enough about the stock market, the effects various world events will have on stock prices, the impact of electric cars and sugar taxes on stock prices, etc...., etc.… Playing my option games and locking in my profit seems like more of a sure thing to me.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Modern Conveniences

  Four years ago I wrote about getting a new Chevrolet Spark from Bob Brown Chevrolet in Urbandale, Iowa. At the time I said the Spark had a tough act to follow in the form of my 2009 Kia Rio. In the intervening four years my Kia has proven to be a dependable emergency vehicle that I take to the occasional chess club meeting with the only major repair being a new clutch at 95,000 miles. When the Spark was new people would ask me how I liked it and I gave my stock answer which is ‘Ask me in a couple of years’ and after more than a couple of years I can say that the Chevy Spark is an OUTSTANDING car that has never left me stranded. The only problem I have had to date was a cracked radiator fluid reservoir and a malfunctioning air conditioner compressor which were both replaced under the extended warranty. The only problem the Chevy Spark had was the passage of time. This month it rolled past 98,000 miles and was two months past the end of the extended warranty. Since I have been working in Ames (75 mile round trip) instead of Des Moines (105 mile round trip) for the last year and a half and was able to work from home three days a week for the six months before that I was able to stretch the Spark’s usage an extra year from my normal car turnover but it was finally time to get a new car. As I said, the 2013 Chevy Spark was an OUTSTANDING car so two weeks ago I sent Bob Brown Chevrolet an email saying I was in the market for a new Spark if they had one at a low price. I got an email back within the hour from Dan the car salesman at Bob Brown. Even though I had bought 7 cars from Bob Brown in the previous 22 years I had never met Dan before and he immediately tried to find out what features I wanted in my new Spark and what colors I wanted and a lot of other stuff I wasn’t interested in. I quickly made it known that I wanted as little as possible in the new Spark and the only color I was interested was some green in my pocket. The 2013 Spark had a stick shift, air conditioning, power windows and a radio. Dan got back to me and said the most stripped down Spark available had air conditioning, power locks and windows, and an automatic transmission. I suppose I could have waited for a more stripped down version to become available but I decided that I would just get the car since maybe at the fast approaching age of 57 having an automatic transmission would be a nice change after 25 years of driving a stick shift and I have to admit having an air-conditioned car is OK too.

  The new car was going to be black and we agreed on the price and made arrangements for me to get the car two Saturdays ago. Kathy was going to drive me down to do the paperwork and I was going to drive back. Everything was according to plan until that morning when the dealer called me to tell me just as were getting ready to take Daisy and Baxter on a long walk before leaving them along for the day. It seems that every Spark was under recall for an air bag issue and I couldn’t get the car that day so I made arrangements to get the car the next weekend ad was very glad that I didn’t go 60 miles to Urbandale for nothing since there is no way I would have gotten a car from Bob Brown ever again.

Neither of these $80,000 Corvettes were in my price range seeing as either one cost more than my house!

  On Saturday, Kathy drove me to Urbandale and dropped me off at Bob Browns at 10:45 for my 11am appointment to get my car. I had some time so I walked around the showroom looking at the cars. There were $80,000 Corvettes, pickup trucks ranging from $35,000 to $70.000, $40,000 sports utility vehicles, with the low price of $25,000 for a Cruze passenger car. Some of these cars had tacky handmade signs pasted on them offering things like cargo mats for an extra $1.16 a month! I would like to think that a $40,000 vehicle would have the cargo mat included. There were no Sparks on the showroom floor. It is the cheapest car offered by Chevrolet and the profit margin isn’t close to what the dealer could get for selling any of the other cars. I’m sure the marketing mavens that advise such things didn’t see the point in wasting floor space on the least expensive car.

A $40,000 car with a cargo mat included...for an extra $1.16 a month!

   Dan the salesmen met me and gave me some paperwork to fill out. When that was finished, I had to wait for the credit approval process. I could have paid for the car or even put it on my credit cards but having the occasional car loan keeps my credit rating up and I’m going to pay it off pretty early anyway. I noodled around on my iPod and put my headphones on so I could avoid the ever present televisions playing Chevrolet ads showing beautiful people getting into brand new beautiful cars and taking drives along some beautiful scenery.

The 90 cent bag of chips was more in my price range although I passed on the $2.50 ounce of beef jerky...

  After a bit I got hungry. Bob Brown had free coffee but no donuts. Luckily there was a series of Chevrolet vending machines so I got a 90 cent bag of potato chips. The vending machine wouldn’t take my dollar bill and I didn’t want to pay for the 90 cent bag of chips with a credit card but I had enough change to cover the purchase and the machine accepted the metal coins, no doubt preparing for the day when it will be configured to accept bitcoin.

  Finally my credit was approved and I met Billie the financing lady who went over all the details. I got the 5 year 100,000 mile warranty instead of the 4 year 100,000 mile warranty I bought last time because this new Spark had an automatic transmission and many more electrical parts and sensors to go bad. The 2017 Spark cost me $3,000 more than the 2013 version because I had $1,000 less from my GM Card to use as a down payment, the extra year warranty cost more, and the 2017 Spark had some extra conveniences like the automatic transmission and cruise control and power locks and 5 years free use of an app that allows me to turn on the headlights and unlock the doors from anywhere in the world as if I was Batman and my Chevy Spark was the Batmobile.

  Less than two hours after I arrived at Bob Brown I was driving out with my new car. I used the cruise control to drive home and in the week I’ve owned the car I’ve only come to a screeching halt in the middle of the highway three times when I forgot I had an automatic transmission and hit the brake thinking it was the clutch. I hope the new Spark wears as well as the old Spark which will now begin a new life as Ben’s car when he goes to school in Long Island this fall.

  I’ve learned a few lessons from my new Spark. The first lesson is that compared to a stick shift, the automatic transmission seems unresponsive. I hit the gas and the car shifts into gear to get into top speed much slower than when I could manipulate the gears with the stick. This is only an issue on the tricky left turn to Highway 30 on my way home where I find I have to leave myself a lot more room. Another lesson is that I don’t care much for the power locks and the little button on the key to lock and unlock the car. I’ve pushed the lock button down and left the rest of the doors unlocked by forgetting to press the button four times already. If I still lived in New Jersey this car would have been stolen (it may have been stolen even if I had locked it). I’ve also learned that I really like the cruise control which will save me money on my annual speeding ticket even though I don’t get where I’m going as fast as I used to. My fourth lesson was a surprise to me in that I found I kind of like the rear view camera. I’ve hardy ever backed into anything but having the close up view is kind of cool when getting into a tight spot. The last thing I learned is how much electric stuff even the cheapest car is full of. Not only can I open the windows and unlock the doors at a push of a button from an app on a smartphone half a world away. I can plug in my iPod into the supplied USB port and play music or podcasts over the cars stereo and even set up a wireless internet hot spot using the car's OnStar system (charges apply). I thougth self-driving vehicles were still decades away but now I am thinking by the time I’m ready for my next car it may be a self-driving vehicle. I don’t know how I’ll like being a full time passenger but I suspect I’ll really like it.

The black and white of my Chevy Spark collection. Live long and prosper in New York, 2013 Chevy Spark! Thanks for your superb service!
Welcome to Marshalltown, 2017 Chevy Spark!